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IBM Inks Deals with Medtech Heavyweights

It's a marriage of high tech and medtech as IBM forges Watson-related partnerships with Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson, and Apple.

Nancy Crotti

IBM will use its Watson artificial intelligence technology to aggregate and securely deliver health information gathered by personal health-tracking devices, connected medical devices, implantables, and other sensors, the company announced.

Apple, Medtronic, and Johnson & Johnson will be the first companies to work with IBM to create new health-based offerings that exploit information collected from personal health, medical, and fitness devices.

Big Blue will also acquire Cleveland-based Explorys and Dallas-based Phytel, to improve its healthcare analytics capabilities. IBM's Watson Health unit will set up shop in the Boston area.

A spin-off from the Cleveland Clinic, Explorys has collected data on 50 million patients to spot patterns in diseases, treatments, and outcomes, according to a report in The New York Times. Phytel makes software to manage patient care and reduce hospital readmission rates. Terms were not disclosed for either deal.

Medical device data mining is a major trend in medtech, and IBM is seeking a major role in it. While Apple, Medtronic, and J&J are the first in the door, their contracts are not exclusive. IBM said it intends to make pacts with other Internet tech and medtech companies.

These deals will push IBM further into the medical arena. The company has collaborated with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and the New York Genome Center to advance Watson's healthcare capabilities in cognitive computing. The company defines cognitive computing systems as those that learn and interact naturally with people to extend what either humans or machine could do on their own.

The Watson Health Cloud platform is able take the reams of health information anonymously generated each day, and share and combine it to create new apps and other solutions to benefit individuals and larger health populations, the company said. Providers would be able to share and apply insights gleaned from Watson-gathered information in real time.

IBM's Watson may help Apple's HealthKit unify health data from disparate sources ranging from fitness trackers to those from mobile-enabled medical devices such as the AliveCor heart monitor. The messy and proprietary nature of data generated by such devices has made it nearly impossible to get a dashboard-like view of disparate types of health metrics.

Electronic health record companies, including Epic, Cerner, and Athenahealth, are working with Apple to develop apps to integrate HealthKit with a number of hospitals across the United States, Reuters has reported. In June 2014, reported that Apple announced a similar partnership with the Mayo Clinic.

When it comes to the other partnerships, Johnson & Johnson will collaborate with IBM to create intelligent, mobile-based coaching systems related to preoperative and postoperative patient care, and Medtronic will leverage the Watson Health Cloud insights platform to collaborate with IBM around delivery of new highly-personalized care management services for people with diabetes.

"Devices alone cannot transform diabetes care. The combination of leadership technologies, big data, informatics and world-class patient management are all required to drive effective results in diabetes care," said Hooman Hakami, executive vice president and president of the Diabetes Group at Medtronic, said in a news release. "Medtronic and IBM intend to bring these capabilities together to pioneer a new level of care that will improve outcomes and lower cost so people living with diabetes can enjoy greater freedom and better health."

The IBM deals also represent the latest collaborations among medtech and high tech. In March, Johnson & Johnson's Ethicon subsidiary made a deal with Google to advance the field of surgical robotics. The collaboration, facilitated by Johnson & Johnson Innovation in California, will focus on creating new robotic surgery tools that integrate best-in-class medical device technology with robotic systems, imaging, and data analytics.

The previous summer, Google announced an ambitious project to analyze the genetic and molecular data of ultimately thousands of people. Known as the Baseline Study, the project will amass data related to often-fatal diseases like heart disease and cancer, potentially enabling earlier treatment and outcomes.

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at BIOMEDevice Boston, May 6-7, 2015.

Nancy Crotti is a contributor to Qmed and MPMN.

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